US veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
are planning to descend on Washington from Mar. 13-16 to testify about war crimes
they committed or personally witnessed in those countries.
"The war in Iraq is not covered to its potential because of how dangerous
it is for reporters to cover it," said Liam Madden, a former Marine and
member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. "That's left a lot of
misconceptions in the minds of the American public about what the true nature
of military occupation looks like."
Iraq Veterans Against the War argues that well-publicized incidents of US brutality
like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the massacre of an entire family of Iraqis
in the town of Haditha are not the isolated incidents perpetrated by "a
few bad apples," as many politicians and military leaders have claimed. They
are part of a pattern, the group says, of "an increasingly bloody occupation."
"The problem that we face in Iraq is that policymakers in leadership have
set a precedent of lawlessness where we don't abide by the rule of law, we don't
respect international treaties, so when that atmosphere exists it lends itself
to criminal activity," argues former US Army Sergeant Logan Laituri,
who served a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 before being discharged as a conscientious
Laituri told IPS that precedent of lawlessness makes itself felt in the rules
of engagement handed down by commanders to soldiers on the front lines. When
he was stationed in Samarra, for example, he said one of his fellow soldiers
shot an unarmed man while he walked down the street.
"The problem is that that soldier was not committing a crime as you might
call it because the rules of engagement were very clear that no one was supposed
to be walking down the street," he said. "But I have a problem with
that. You can't tell a family to leave everything they know so you can bomb
the sh*t out of their house or their city. So while he definitely has protection
under the law, I don't think that legitimates that type of violence."
Iraq Veterans Against the War is calling the gathering "Winter Soldier,"
after a quote from the US revolutionary Thomas Paine, who wrote in 1776: "These
are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot
will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands
it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
Organizers say video and photographic evidence will also be presented, and
the testimony and panels will be broadcast live on Satellite TV and streaming
video on ivaw.org.
Winter Soldier is modeled on a similar event held by Vietnam Veterans 37 years
In 1971, over 100 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War gathered in Detroit
to share their stories with fellow citizens. Atrocities like the My Lai massacre
had ignited popular opposition to the war, but political and military leaders
insisted that such crimes were isolated exceptions.
"Initially even the My Lai massacre was denied," notes Gerald Nicosia,
whose book Home
to War provides the most exhaustive history of the Vietnam veterans'
"The US military has traditionally denied these accusations based on the
fact that 'this is a crazy soldier' or 'this is a malcontent' – that you can't
trust this person. And that is the reason that Vietnam Veterans Against the
War did this unified presentation in Detroit in 1971."
"They brought together their bona fides and wore their medals and showed
it was more than one or two or three malcontents. It was medal-winning, honored
soldiers – veterans in a group verifying what each other said to try to convince
people that these charges cannot be denied. That people are doing these things
as a matter of policy."
Nicosia says the 1971 Winter Soldier was roundly ignored by the mainstream
media, but that it made an indelible imprint on those who were there.
Among those in attendance was 27-year-old Navy Lieutenant John Kerry, who had
served on a Swift Boat in Vietnam. Three months after the hearings, Nicosia
notes, Kerry took his case to Congress and spoke before a jammed Senate Foreign
Relations Committee. Television cameras lined the walls, and veterans packed
"Many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed
in Southeast Asia," Kerry told the committee, describing the events of
the Winter Soldier gathering.
"It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit
– the emotions in the room, and the feelings of the men who were reliving their
experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country,
in a sense, made them do."
In one of the most famous antiwar speeches of the era, Kerry concluded: "Someone
has to die so that President Nixon won't be – and these are his words – 'the
first president to lose a war.' We are asking Americans to think about that,
because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you
ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Nicosia says US citizens and veterans find themselves in a similar situation
"The majority of the American people are very dissatisfied with the Iraq
war now and would be happy to get out of it. But Americans are bred deep into
their psyches to think of America as a good country and, I think, much harder
than just the hurdle of getting troops out of Iraq is to get Americans to realize
the terrible things we do in the name of the United States."
(Inter Press Service)